Sleep and Separation – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Another week, another zoom… can you believe that June is around the corner? Time has felt like it was crawling by, so the fact that it is ‘suddenly’ almost June makes me wonder if I’m starting to become acclimated to the way life is right now. Humans are funny creatures, are we not? Magda often said that what babies get, they come to expect, and then need…now I wonder if she could expand that thought to all of us…

Speaking of habits, one thing that came up on the call last night was the issue of night wakings and how to respond to them. I’m so sorry: I feel for all of you who are helping your little ones learn to sleep through the night…no, let me correct that…helping their little ones learn to put themselves BACK to sleep when they awaken in the middle of the night. The truth is, we all awaken, at least a little, in the middle of the night, courtesy of our sleep cycles. It’s just that adults have learned to put themselves back to sleep (or are so sleep deprived that putting themselves back to sleep isn’t an issue at this stage in life…).

What does that mean in terms of habits? First, your child will be better able to return to sleep with less assistance from you if they go to be initially with less assistance from you. If they are used to being rocked or held or nursed to sleep, odds are that is what they will need to return to sleep. So, start with helping children learn to fall asleep unassisted at bedtime. I also mean work on creating the habit for yourself…Eileen Henry (The Compassionate Sleep Solution) recommends walking children through the bedtime (and night waking) scenario during the day…rehearsing what happens and what you’d like to happen…down to where the child is and where you are, and what you plan to say and what you’d like your child to say or do. Sure, this may help your child mentally prepare, but more importantly, it helps you have a game plan for how you want to respond in the middle of the night…when you’re sleep deprived and exhausted and want to do anything to help your child sleep. Like with a fire drill, if you’ve walked through it a few times, you’re more likely to stick to the plan. (True story: I woke up to an apartment fire and instead of going out the incredibly easily accessible fire escape that was attached to our bedroom (the very one that we hung out on many a Saturday afternoon), my husband and I walked down the main stairs, passing fire fighters and the apartment that had flames reaching out the door and licking the ceiling. Fire drills are important. So is practicing what you want to do in the middle of the night.)

I also want to throw in a good word for more sunshine. Yep: sunshine to help children sleep. As it turns out, our circadian rhythms are greatly impacted by the sun (which also means we may sleep differently at different times of the year). I don’t know about you, but I know I’m getting significantly less sunshine these days than I used to, and it’s something I’m actively working to change. I encourage you to get yourselves and your children outside and into fresh air and sunshine in the mornings to get that internal clock activated. The parents I’ve talked to who get lots of outdoor time (particularly in the mornings) tend to have more consistent nappers. It also means you should plan to dim the lights (and definitely the screens) as the sun sets and you head toward bedtime.

If you’d like more personalized help with sleep, let me know. Sleep is one of those issues that’s so individualized and unique to each family that it’s really hard to write generically about; it’s a big topic that used to scare me (and honestly, still does a little…it’s so BIG), but it’s also something that fascinates me and challenges me, so I’m happy to help!

One family I talked to also mentioned that they were able to bring their nanny back again, which has been incredibly helpful on the one hand…but surprisingly challenging on the other because one of her children is having a hard time readjusting to her, once beloved, caregiver. If that’s also happening in your house (or you anticipate it may soon), I want to reassure you that this is not unusual. You likely had to stop working with your nanny (or daycare or grandparent or babysitter) kind of quickly, with little opportunity for your child to say goodbye. It’s not at all unusual for children to have a stand-offish response to a once beloved caregiver who is no longer routinely in their lives…even if you had had the opportunity for a gentle and extended farewell. Goodbyes hurt, and they really hurt when it is someone you love and care for. Young children are authentic…they will not be shy about demonstrating their hurt and distrust to someone who up and left them. They don’t care about pandemics, or changing to new classrooms, ahem…I can’t tell you how many cold shoulders I’ve lived through….it hurts on the caregiver’s end, too. What’s important here, for you dear parent, is to be patient, acknowledge children’s feelings and talk about how it was hard for them, how much they missed the person…and to gradually let that caregiver begin to resume their role. (And, dear caregiver, don’t take it personally…or do…but take it personally with the positive spin that this child had deep affection for you…and if you are authentically present and patient, they will again.) It takes time, but those attachments can be re-established.

The last topic I wanted to touch on was limit setting and sibling conflicts, but honestly, I think that’s best saved for a full article instead of a few paragraphs, so I will put it in my back pocket for a future article. (If you’re struggling now, though, let me know!).

That’s all for now. Happy “Friday Eve” as we sometimes say in this house. Looking forward to the opportunity to chat and think with you all this Saturday…two opportunities…9:30-11 and 1-3!